Improving Seed and Food Security in Malawi: The Role of Community Seed Banks

FNI Policy Brief 1/2022. Lysaker, Fridtjof Nansen Institute,  June 2022, 9 p.

Smallholder farmers are the backbone of the Malawian economy. However, they increasingly experience food shortages. This Policy Brief focuses on the role of seeds in addressing hunger, and how community seed banks can contribute to seed and food security. It also addresses the need for an enabling policy environment.

Smallholder farmers depend on cultivating a diverse range of local crops and varieties. This diversity helps them to adapt their production to the effects of climate change and to meet nutritional needs. However, in Malawi, seeds of local crops and varieties are often scarce; in many communities, much of the diversity is gone or is disappearing at fast pace. Food shortages are frequent in the lean period before harvest time and farmers in desperate need of food often end up eating their own seeds. The low purchasing power of many smallholder farmers and the reduced availability of seed of preferred varieties means that the possibilities for buying seed are limited. A vicious circle ensues, and the possibility of meeting dietary needs deteriorates.

In Malawi, official seed policies have contributed towards this reduced diversity, as they neglect the vital importance of local crops and varieties for food and nutrition security. The legislation along with agricultural policies heavily promotes the commercial seed sector.

Agrobiodiversity-based community seed banks contribute significantly to local seed and food security by serving as valuable hubs for the reintroduction of local crop diversity, knowledge sharing on agricultural methods, capacity building and empowerment. Thus, scaling out well functioning agrobiodiversity-based community seed banks is an important means to improve seed and food security among smallholder farmers in Malawi. If just a fraction of the funding invested in commercial crop production could be allocated for support and development of community seed banks, much would be achieved.

Organizations involved in smallholding farming projects in Malawi should consider assessing the seed security in their project areas and including community seed banks as components of their projects. This will help to ensure that farmers in the project areas have access to seeds of preferred crop varieties. Further recommendations for policymakers, legislators NGOs and donors as well as success factors for community seed banks are highlighted in the policy brief.